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Paul Auster: City of Glass

You either like metafiction or you don’t. If you don’t, you are going to hate this novel. The first novel in Auster’s New York Trilogy is also Auster’s first real novel. He has called it a New York Trilogy but the only commonality between the three books is that they are metafiction, set in New York and use the detective fiction genre, though they cannot be said to be detective fiction. This novel, according to Auster, reverses the standard detective novel by asking questions instead of giving answers. In addition, it uses several metafictional devices. Paul Auster or, rather, Paul Austers appears throughout the book in various guises. Language, as in many metafictional novels, is key but also something to play with, like a game, to confuse the reader.

The story starts with Quinn, a mystery writer, receiving, by mistake, a phone call for Paul Auster – that is Paul Auster, the detective, not Paul Auster, the writer. Quinn, a widower and unattached, decides to be Paul Auster and takes on the case. He has been hired by Peter and Virginia Stillman, to follow Peter’s father who, they think, is going to try and kill Peter. Peter Stillman (the father, who is also called Peter) is a just released mental patient who was committed for locking his son up in a room for nine years. Quinn follows Stillman Senior around the city. At first it seems as though his wanderings are random but his journey spells out the words Tower of Babel making it clear, if we were not already aware, that this book is about language. Indeed, language is, at least in part, the reason why Stillman locked up his son, so that he could learn the original language. When Quinn loses Stillman, he turns for help to Paul Auster, the man who he thinks is a real detective but who is, of course, a writer and just as mystified as Quinn as to what is going on.

Nothing is resolved, as it should not be in a metafictional novel, for there is no tidy plot, all neatly folded up like a real detective novel. Instead Auster leaves us wondering who is really who, whether language has lost its meaning (it has) and whether the form of the novel still has validity. He does with consummate skill, wit and a sense of the genre he is mocking, keeping us guessing all along.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Sun & Moon Press